Meet Jessie Cayton. She's an eighth-grade English teacher at a middle school in Texas, and she recently went viral for her amazing approach to better understanding her students.
Jessie is among a group of teachers who have introduced a mental health "check-in" board designed for students to communicate how they're feeling by using sticky notes.
Her post on her check-in board has been shared nearly 70,000 times on Facebook and across other social media platforms. People have been applauding it as a unique approach to addressing mental health in the classroom.
Jessie told BuzzFeed News: "I’m blown away by the reach of my post. I actually found several versions of it while scrolling through what I lovingly refer to it as 'teachergram,' screenshotted the idea, and then the Monday we came back from spring break, [I] did it with my eighth graders.
"After it took off, further proving I just don’t understand the internet, the original creator of the idea reached out on Instagram to let me know it was actually her post I’d screenshotted. I immediately gave her credit on Insta and Facebook."
And the creator at the centre of it all is Erin Castillo, a high school English teacher for students with mild to moderate learning needs in San Francisco.
Erin told BuzzFeed News: "I’ve taught a lot of students that have experienced trauma and difficult situations over my six years of teaching, and I’ve had students contemplate and even attempt to take their own lives.
"I wanted to do something to help them communicate that help was needed in a nonverbal way. Many of us struggle to find the words to ask for help. I thought this poster could make it a bit easier for my students to reach out."
Speaking on her role as a teacher, Erin believes that her job is to build relationships with her students.
She said: "First and foremost my job is to build relationships with students. As human beings we are much more open towards people [who] we feel care about us. If I want my students to listen to me, they need to know that I care about them and have their best interests at heart.
"Mental health is a theme of my classroom that will never go away. How can I expect my students to focus on curriculum when they are struggling with other issues internally?"
So how does it work? Well, students are encouraged to write their names on the back of a sticky note and place it in the section that best describes how they are feeling. These emotions range from "I'm great" right down to "I'm in a really dark place".
"I would love to see this poster in every classroom. There is something more to this than just hanging a poster though. Teachers have to have a discussion surrounding the topic of mental health," said Erin.
She added: "We have to explain to students that it’s okay to not be okay all the time, and as teachers we need to model how we cope with hard times. So I provide discussion points in my free resource to help guide this discussion."
Erin's influence is spreading, and other teachers have introduced the idea into their classrooms in the hopes of better understanding their students. Brittani Gomes, a fourth-grade teacher, said she "never dreamed of the emotional obstacles" her students experience.
"We often assess students and make good assumptions that they’re okay or not. However, in the world we live in today, there is so much going on that we can’t see or even begin to understand. There is so much happening in children’s lives — higher expectations, different parenting styles, relationships with peers, self-image and self-esteem, learning differences, abuse, and so on," she said.
"With the higher expectations academically often comes the self-expectation to be okay all the time. I wanted this board in my class to show my students that they're not alone, and it’s okay to not be okay. If they are able to identify emotional struggles at 9 to 10 years old, then we can begin to repair and build their self-esteem while helping them grow into strong, confident, intelligent
members of society."
And the results have been eye-opening for educators like Brittani, who has been teaching for a year.
She shared: "I have been surprised by some of their placements on the board. Some students who I would usually describe as happy and positive didn’t see themselves that way. It’s given me the opportunity to be able to connect with more of my students and even have them connect with our school counsellor to address deeper issues."
Kelli Cessac, a fifth-grade teacher from Nashville, said she was inspired by the idea after seeing it on Erin's social media. She said: "It stuck out to me because I know our students tuck away emotions. I felt it would be a great to have students be intentional about their feelings and mental state."
Speaking on the impact, Kellie said: "Since introducing the check-in, my fifth graders have become more open to meeting with me to talk through things. They are not afraid to admit when they are struggling. They feel more safe in the environment to share and be heard."
People love how the teachers are normalising conversations about mental health with young people.
And more than anything, they want to see such tools introduced beyond the classroom.
Ade Onibada is a junior reporter at BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Ade Onibada at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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